22 Research-Proven Tips for Better Memory
“The existence of forgetting has never been proved: We only know that some things don’t come to mind when we want them.”
- Friedrich Nietzsche
If our brains were computers, we’d simply add a chip to upgrade our memory. Because the human brain is more elaborate than even the most advanced machine, upgrading human memory requires slightly more effort.
There are a number of steps you can take to enhance your retrieval capacity. Just like muscular strength, your ability to remember increases when you exercise your memory and nurture it with a good diet and other healthy habits. Here are 22 brain boosters to jumpstart your memory. One hint: If you’re already a devotee of a heart-healthy lifestyle, you’re way ahead of the game. What’s good for the heart is probably good for your head. That’s twice the motivation and payoff.
1. Minding your meditation.
You don’t have to join a monastery or hire a guru to reap the substantial rewards of daily meditation. As little as 10 minutes a day may be enough — whether it’s sitting in the car waiting to pick up your child from school or in a quiet room at lunchtime.
Besides counteracting the kinds of cardiovascular ailments that can lead to poor brain function, meditation may also reduce levels of the stress hormone called cortisol. This chemical can wreak havoc with cognitive abilities such as memory recall.
But that’s not all. A group of U.S. scientists recently found an association between meditation and an increase in the thickness of the cortex, the part of the brain that handles a variety of higher functions. This growth in density suggests that meditation, performed regularly, may put the brakes on the natural thinning of the cortex that takes place as we age.
2. You snooze, you win.
Although experts still puzzle over why sleep is necessary, one thing is certain: We cannot survive more than a few weeks without it. When we are denied good, restful, sustained sleep on a regular basis, our brains falter in concentration, learning, memory and alertness. That’s no matter how much coffee you might guzzle.
The best explanation science has come up with for the healing power of sleep is that brain cells use the “time out” to close down and repair damage. Without sufficient sleep, neurons may not have time to repair all the damage, and so could malfunction during the day. Sleep also may give the brain a chance to perform a workout of sorts among important neuronal connections that might go dormant, explain scientists. Imagine exercising your brain while lying in bed dreaming. What could be better?
3. Rev up your heart.
Old-time cardio can also enhances mental sharpness by improving a number of aspects of brain functions. In a recent research, scientists from the University of Illinois, Urbana, put two groups of older, healthy adult volunteers on different regimens. One group did aerobic training three times a week for 1 hour; the other did non-aerobic stretching and toning.
MRI scans taken after 3 months showed that the aerobics group actually increased their brains’ volume (which could reflect new neurons or cells) and white matter (connections between neurons) in the frontal lobes, which contribute to attention and memory processing. The aerobic exercisers, who ranged from age 60 to 79, had the brain volumes of people 2 to 3 years younger, said Arthur Kramer, PhD, who reported his results in the Journal of Gerontology: Medical Sciences. Taking a 1-hour walk at a brisk, slightly breathless pace three times a week will likely confer the same benefits.
4. Jumping jacks for the brain.
Well, sort of. By stimulating your mind, you may be able to improve cognitive function, and perhaps delay or even prevent mental disorders such as dementia.
Anything that expands your knowledge will be effective. The emphasis is on new, as in learning a new language, dance step or sport (the more social the setting the better, as this increases the effect due to the brain benefits of human interaction). Or read a new book or do crossword or sudoku puzzles (which constantly expose you to new information). All these activities build more connections between neural cells, which recent research indicates may even forestall dementia and Alzheimer’s.
5. Engage with folks.
All primates, including humans, are highly social animals. In a sense, our brains have spent a couple of million years fine-tuning themselves to the nuances of social interactions, because that’s been a lynchpin of survival. But modern society has turned many of us into near-hermits. And that’s not only unnatural, it’s unhealthy for the brain. Relationships stimulate our brains. There’s a lot of evidence that other people are the most unpredictable things you can encounter, so activities that have you engaging with other human beings are a fantastic form of brain exercise.
There are dozens of ways to engage with folks. Volunteer at a charity or organization. Join a book club, bowling league, or any group dedicated to being actively engaged. And don’t forget that pets, especially the highly social dog, can serve some of the same functions as humans in stimulating our minds and relieving stress.
6. Control your cholesterol.
A healthful cholesterol level is as crucial for mental sharpness as it is for cardiovascular efficiency. When plaque, caused by “bad” LDL cholesterol, builds up in blood vessels, it can hinder circulation to the brain, depriving it of vital nutrients. One possible consequence: memory problems.
It doesn’t take much plaque to block the tiny blood vessels in the brain. In addition, various studies have shown that high cholesterol is a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease. While that connection is not fully understood, the take-home is clear: Get your cholesterol checked regularly; if it’s high, work with your doctor to lower it.
7. Double-check your meds.
You have to protect yourself and double-check everything. One side effect of taking many prescription and over-the-counter drugs can be an alarming increase in memory lapses. And as you get older, drugs tend to stay in your system for a longer period of time, increasing the likelihood of dangerous interactions. Fortunately, any drug-related impairment will likely improve as soon as the drug is discontinued. Speaking with your doctor about adjusting your dose or switching medications is often a simple solution.
8. Glass of red for your head.
It is news guaranteed to raise a cheer among those who enjoy a glass or two: Flex your noodle by doing crossword puzzles and brain teasers for an hour or so, then cool down with a glass of wine it, too, may help preserve your memory. According to research done by Philippe Marambaud, PhD, a compound in red wine, resveratrol, may help ward off Alzheimer’s disease.
Alcohol can help lower cholesterol levels and may also protect against memory loss by improving circulation to the brain. But remember, everything in moderation — drinking more than a glass won’t help, and it just might hurt.
9. Jolt yourself with java.
Perhaps on-the-job java should be a company mandate. Austrian scientists discovered that drinking a cup of coffee truly does make you mentally sharper. Researchers measured brain activity in 16 men after they consumed either 100 milligrams of caffeine — about the same amount as in a cup of joe — or a placebo.
Test results showed that the caffeine group registered greater activity in the regions of the brain responsible for short-term memory, attention, and concentration. There’s a time limit, though: The benefits diminish after 45 minutes.
10. High-tech brain power.
Your kid knows best: Video games are good for your brain. Researchers say playing one of the new games specially designed to improve your focus could have the indirect effect of getting your memory in shape. A host of new studies suggest that video games build rather than diminish cognitive skills. Even a relatively simple tiling puzzle like Tetris has been shown to boost brainpower. Whenever you solve puzzles or do brainteasers, you’re making the connections between your neurons work more efficiently, which is like putting money in the bank. But if you get too good at one game, quickly proceed to the next level, or try a new one altogether. Your brain is very much like a muscle: It needs constant challenge to grow.
11. Learn the word “neurobics.”
A melding of the words “neuron” (brain cell) and “aerobics,” neurobics is the brainchild of the Duke University neurobiologist Lawrence Katz and author Manning Rubin. In Keep Your Brain Alive, they outline an unusual brain exercise program that’s based on a solid foundation of neuroscience research. Specific kinds of sensory stimulation, they believe, causes brain cells to secrete molecules called neurotrophins that act like nutrients to improve cellular health.
What’s the best sort of stimulation? Katz and Rubin offer 83 activities that make you “experience the unexpected and enlist the aid of all your senses.” Try showering with your eyes closed, tuning in to the sounds and feel of water on your skin. Use your non-dominant hand to brush your teeth or comb your hair. Wear earplugs at the dinner table. Take one of your children to work with you. Learn to read Braille.
12. Turn off background noise.
We all multitask, a necessary survival skill of the digital age. But did you know that just listening to the news while browsing the Web can limit how well you’re able to recall both? Normally, when you take in new information, you process it with a part of the brain called the cerebral cortex. But multitasking greatly reduces learning because people can’t attend to the relevant information. That’s because the brain is forced to switch processing to an area called the striatum, and the information stored here tends to contain fewer important details.
Luckily, this kind of memory problem has an easy fix: Simply pay undivided attention to whatever you really want to recall later.
13. Economize your brain use.
If you don’t need to use mental energy remembering where you laid your keys or the time of your grandmother’s birthday party, you’ll be better able to concentrate on learning and remembering new and important things. Take advantage of calendars and planners, maps, shopping lists, file folders, and address books to keep routine information accessible. Designate a place at home for your glasses, purse, keys, and other items you use frequently. Removing clutter from your office or home will minimize distractions so you can focus on the new information you want to remember.
14. Be active.
This applies to everything, whether you’re listening, thinking or reading. Make an effort to take notes or acknowledge that you’ve heard what the other person has told you. When we’re passive, our minds drift away. If you work hard at being active, your brain will register what is being said and you’ll remember it more easily.
15. Crime scene investigator.
Start paying attention to detail. We hear an overwhelming quantity of information each day, but we only remember what is important to us. Broaden what you deem significant and you will remember more. A good trick is to imagine that everything is vital. Pretend you’re a crime scene investigator or a secret agent and that every aspect of what’s going on around you is vital to national security.
16. Engage your senses.
The more senses you use when you learn something, the more of your brain will be involved in retaining the memory. For example, odors are famous for conjuring memories from the distant past, especially those with strong emotional content, such as visits to a cookie-baking grandmother.
A recent research published in the journal Neuron demonstrated that odors can also improve memories of more routine matters. Adults were shown a series of emotionally neutral images, each presented along with an odor. They were not asked to remember what they saw. Later, they were shown a set of images, this time without odors, and asked to indicate which they’d seen before. Recall was excellent for all odor-paired pictures, and the best for those associated with pleasant smells. During brain imaging, researchers found that the primary odor-processing region of the brain (the piriform cortex) became active when people saw objects they’d originally seen with odors, even though odors were no longer present and the subjects hadn’t tried to remember them.
17. Repeat after me.
When you want to remember something you have just heard or thought about, repeat it out loud. For example, if you’ve just been told someone’s name, use it when you speak with him or her: “So Dave, where did you meet Jasmine?”
If you place one of your belongings somewhere other than its designated home, make a note of it aloud to yourself. And don’t hesitate to ask for information to be repeated.
18. Space it out.
Repetition is an even more potent learning tool when it’s properly timed. Instead of repeating something many times in a short period, as if you were cramming for an exam, re-study the essentials after increasingly longer periods of time — once an hour, then every few hours, then every day. Spacing out periods of study is particularly valuable when you are trying to master complicated information, such as the details of a new assignment at work. In research studies, spaced rehearsal improves recall in both healthy people and those with physically based cognitive problems, such as those associated with multiple sclerosis.
19. Break it into smaller chunks.
New information that’s broken into smaller chunks, such as the hyphenated sections of a phone or social security number, is easier to remember than a single long list, such as financial account numbers or the name of everyone in a classroom. When presented with something lengthy to remember, divide it into smaller pieces (in the classroom, separate the children by row and gender), or notice patterns, such as repeated digits or all the children with long hair.
20. Make associations.
Establish links between what you’re trying to recollect and things you already know. It can be a color, a number or a rhyme. To remember a list of things, picture images that rhyme with numbers. For example, one rhymes with sun; visually associate sun with the first item of your list. Then, do the same with two, which rhymes with clue, etc. You can also use acronyms and combinations of names — or make sentences using the first letter of every word — as mnemonic tools.
21. Make a mnemonic.
Mnemonic devices are creative ways to remember lists. They can take the form of acronyms — such as the word RICE to remember first-aid advice for injured limbs: Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation — or sentences, such as the classic “Every good boy does fine,” to remember the musical notes E, G, B, D, and F on the lines of the treble clef.
For older learners, a particularly helpful system is a story mnemonic — that is, a brief narrative in which each item cues you to remember the next one. For example, the sentence “The dog knocked over my glass of milk so I have to wash the floor” could remind you that your dog has a vet appointment, you should pick up your new glasses, and you need to buy milk and floor cleaner.
22. Enjoy the information.
We always remember the things in which we are interested. If you despise mathematics, you’ll have a very hard time remembering complicated theorems. But if you read up on the topic and discover the plight of the scientists who developed them, you will be directly involved and remembering them will be almost effortless. The same goes for everything. There’s a reason why the phone number of your favorite pizza place is easier to recall than that of your dentist’s office.
Care about what you want to remember and put some genuine effort into it. The more you practice your newfound skills and keep your mind active, the more your memory will improve.
It’s worth doing since everyone thinks highly of people with good memories. It could seriously help you at work and in your personal life.
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